Looking to Buy an Acoustic Guitar? Read This First.

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Acoustic Guitars

If You’re Looking to Buy An Acoustic Guitar…

Acoustic Guitars
A row of mouth-watering acoustic guitars

If you’re looking to buy an acoustic guitar, hey, congrats! I’m a little bit jealous, actually. Walking into a music store and picking out a guitar is one of my favorite things to do.

There are so many choices in a music store that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There are dozens or hundreds–literally walls–of guitars in most music shops. The good news is that there are really only a few things to watch out for, and the rest comes down to personal taste.

If you know somebody who knows guitars, consider bringing them along to the shop with you for moral support. Also feel free to print this sheet out and use it as a checklist.

Ready? Cool. Let’s go.

Get the intended owner’s opinion. If you’re buying this guitar for someone other than yourself, and you’re unsure about specifically what they want, consider bringing them along. Will it ruin the surprise? Absolutely. But it’ll also make sure they get a guitar that appeals to them. If you still want it to be a total surprise, buy a gift certificate and slip it into an envelope.

Relax. There’s no need to feel rushed. Give yourself time to wander around and look at all the cool instruments.

Beware false savings. Invest in the best instrument you can afford. Generally speaking, if you found it in a toy store, it’s a toy, not a playable guitar. If you’re just beginning on the guitar and you don’t want to go in too deep just yet, ask the clerk to show you some beginning and intermediate acoustic guitars.

Mind your budget. If you have any trouble finding a guitar in your price range, ask a clerk or a salesperson to help you find some instruments that match what you want to spend.

Don’t be afraid of used guitars. Buying a used instrument can actually be a great way to get a better-sounding guitar for the same money. Whether you’re buying new or used, take the precautions listed below and you should be fine.

Ask to see some classical guitars, too. Classical guitars have nylon strings that are spaced further apart for accurate, precise playing. Even lower-priced models can be very sweet-sounding and responsive to your touch. They have a gorgeous, singing sound that you should definitely experience, even if you ultimately end up buying a more standard steel string guitar. The two types sound dramatically different, and the comparison comes down to apples vs. oranges really–trust your instincts.

Check the action. “Action” here refers to how high the strings are suspended above the guitar’s fretboard. Lower action is easier to play.

Check the neck. To ensure that the neck of a guitar is not seriously warped, lift the guitar face-up to eye level, as though you’re aiming a rifle. Peer up the neck toward the headstock. If the neck looks from this angle like a neat and orderly highway leading straight to the headstock, you should be okay. It’s normal to notice a bit of curvature, so don’t worry about that. What you’re really looking for here is whether the wood of the neck looks obviously bumpy or uneven in any way. Note too that when you’re holding a guitar in playing posture and looking down at the neck from above, it’s quite normal to see some curvature near the middle of the neck. No worries there.

Acoustic Guitar Machine Heads
A machine head demonstration

Test the machine heads. Give each of the machine heads a very small experimental twist clockwise, then counterclockwise. They should be a little bit difficult to turn. If they spin at the slightest touch with no resistance, the guitar may not stay in tune. Testing the machine heads in this way will put the guitar slightly out of tune… don’t worry about that.

Before purchasing, ask the clerk or salesperson to check the intonation. If you’ve made up your mind on a guitar and you want to take her home with you, ask a clerk if you can get the guitar’s intonation (in-toe-nation) checked. They’ll know what you mean. It’s a very simple little procedure that makes sure the guitar will play in tune. If there’s an intonation issue, you might as well deal with it before you take the instrument home rather than haul it back in for repairs. Most stores have staff in-house that can perform this kind of maintenance for you; if their repair person happens to be around that day, they might even offer to adjust the intonation while you wait.

Trust your instincts. If a guitar feels good to put your arms around, and makes a sound that you love, that’s the guitar for you.

Three more things you’ll want to grab. While you’re at the store, make sure you pick up a tuner, some guitar picks, and an extra set of strings. Ask the clerk to help you select these if you have any doubts. Picks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Pick up some marked as “medium”; this refers to the flexibility of the pick. You might also try some light and heavy picks just for the sake of experimentation. Grab at least a few; picks like to vanish into sofa cushions, washing machines, etc.

This is an exciting outing, especially if you’ve never owned a guitar before. Take your time, ask questions, and have fun!

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

There are 4 comments

  1. Avatar

    Hey Nick…

    Great article, man. Definately don’t be afraid of used. There are screaming deals to be had for great, name brand guitars that are already broken in!

    One thing I might suggest that the wife of a friend of mine did to him:

    If you are buying as a gift, take the intended person with you but, go to the sporting goods store, the jewelry store, etc… as well as the music store. At each store ask, “Which (whatever) would you pick out for yorself?” Now the person will know one of these things will show up at home but not which one.
    It works well and the giftee will drive themselves nuts imagining which thing they are going to get!

    Later… D

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Don’t just look for a low action- Low action + high saddle is the best combination- at least 1/8″(3mm) above the bridge. Also look out for a good saddle fit- often see guitars with loose saddles sometimes so bad that they are sloping forwards. Best advice is to take someone who really knows their way round guitars!

    Reply

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